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A. Professor Jenny Lin

Jenny is Associate Professor of Critical Studies in the University of Southern California’s Roski School of Art and Design. She is the author of Above Sea: Contemporary Art, Urban Culture, and the Fashioning of Global Shanghai. We spoke to Jenny about The DNA of Shanghai.


Image Credit: Wix.

Greg Clark

What I think we should begin with is just you talking in whatever way you want to do about your work on Shanghai, what you've been doing and what it's meant to you. 


Jenny Lin

So my name is Jenny Lin. I'm a professor at University of Southern California's Roski School of Art and Design. I am trained as an art historian, and I now teach courses and curatorial studies and critical studies in art and design. I did my PhD dissertation at the University of California, Los Angeles and won an award, a Pacific Rim Research Award, to do dissertation research in the city of Shanghai, which I had actually been to many years prior. I have family there and aunties and uncles. My dad's side of the family, a lot of them settled there. So I had gone since the early '90s and really saw these extreme rapid changes of the city, especially in the sector of art and culture that I have always been looking at closely. So at the PhD level, I wrote a dissertation researching art, design, architecture of the city and how it relates to Shanghai's myth that has long been in place of the city as mainland China's most cosmopolitan, so-called east-meets-west metropolis. So I was looking at how art, design and art institutions have played into this idea of Shanghai being the most cosmopolitan, international east-meets-west city in the country.


So I wrote a book. It's called Above Sea: Contemporary Art, Urban Culture and the Fashioning of Global Shanghai. And the Above Sea is a riff off of the actual literal translation of Shanghai into English, which is Shang is above and Hai is sea. So yeah, that book is out with Manchester University Press and, yeah, available for more perusing if you're interested.


Greg Clark

Why don't we begin, then, with you just talking about Shanghai's name and what that means from your point of view, how you interpret this idea of above sea and what does it mean about Shanghai and then say something about this myth of Shanghai as this cosmopolitan city. I always say to people, you know, you have to think of Shanghai as a pacific city as well as a Chinese city. Talk about that in terms of how you read those two ideas, the name of Shanghai and the myth about Shanghai.


Jenny Lin

Yeah, absolutely. The name always seemed really poetic to me when I've been studying, in addition to art history and Chinese art and culture, Chinese language. And so I'm coming to Chinese from it being a second language that I acquired and learned. And the idea of being above sea, I thought about also in relationship to the film 'Der Himmel uber Berlin' that talks about the idea of a space above East and West Germany and thinking about the possibility of transcending political borders and divides and national allegiances. So that's how I thought of it, and that's why I was drawn to using it in my own book's title. The idea, also, of an ocean culture is really closely attached to Shanghai - and we can talk about this more - but in my thinking about the spirit of Shanghai, at least, I was thinking about Lu Xun's early writings in 1920s, 1930s Shanghai, and he talks about the city and, distinctly, it's haipai or ocean style and that was juxtaposed always against Jingpai or Beijing's style being more like a capital style. So as where the ocean style is more linked to an open-mindedness to outside cultures and also a kind of more fluid idea of what art can be and also a more commercially minded, merchant-oriented, internationally trade-oriented idea of culture--


And that was set in juxtaposition to Beijing's culture, Jingpai, usually thought of as more closely aligned with the government, politics, thinking about art as a political tool. So those are some of the kind of distinctions of this idea of sea and being above sea that I think Shanghai has mythically inhabited, at least. Of course, we have to think about the real colonial legacies within the city and that it was thrust open and forced open as a treaty port following Britain's victory in the First Opium War, carved up subsequently into various districts that were controlled and run by foreign powers. The British and the Americans controlled the International Settlement, the French controlled the French Concession, Japanese later took over a part of the city, and so it was really kind of beholden to also the rules of colonial powers and oftentimes oppressive exploitative conditions. So I think it's important to also not only have this kind of very positive idea of a city above sea but also to think realistically about the colonial legacies that haunted it in many ways and also, actually, the resistance that formed because of that. So we also see Shanghai as the birthplace of communism.


It was the site of the First Communist Congress in 1921, and that happened in a little shikumen house in the French Concession. So oftentimes, you see leftist writers and political figures and revolutionaries kind of hiding out in those foreign concessions or foreign-occupied settlements in order to resist both the colonialism of foreign powers and also the command of the Nationalist Party.


Greg Clark

Brilliant, Jenny, and what a fantastic way to summarise a few hundred years of history. Let me ask you two questions about all of that because everything you're saying is brilliantly on the money, as it were. So prior to European colonialisation, did the myth of Shanghai as a cosmopolitan trading city already exist? And is there something in the art and design, culture and history that attests to that openness pre-colonialism?


Jenny Lin

From my understanding, not very much. It was more of a fishing village. There was certainly a merchant culture that was more closely associated with cities to the south of Beijing and far from the political capital during the Qing Dynasty. But I think that the legacy of it as the east-meets-west city and one that was very open to internationalism certainly came about in conjunction with the rise of colonialism in the 19th century.


Greg Clark

So, therefore, in a sense, you're saying that this cosmopolitanism was, to some degree, imposed rather than chosen.


Jenny Lin

Yes. And, you know, one book that's really helped me think through this is Leo Ou-fan Lee's Shanghai Modern. And he talks about, the transliteration of the word modern into modeng. So it's actually transliterated from both French moderne and English modern developed in Shanghai. So to think about the literal meaning of the idea of it being the most modern city in China, that's something that also is talked about a lot. And this modern identity is really linked directly to the idea of a foreign presence within the city and trying to make sense of that. So it was imposed, but in some ways, it was also embraced, I think, by locals, people who were quite taken with and excited by the prospects of these overlapping cultures. Shanghai also during-- from the time of the Russian Revolution, there are a lot of white Russians that came and settled in Shanghai. It was one of the only cities in the world where you didn't have to have a passport to sojourn. There are a huge population of Jewish refugees that came over in the years leading up to World War II. So in cases when, especially as the 20th century progressed and Chinese classes - a merchant class developed and a class that was intermediary between the foreign powers and locals - developed, and people had more agency, there was also quite a bit of excitement and embrace of this modern culture.


It was a place where there were cabarets and jazz music, and black musicians from New York were coming over to play in the Peace Hotel. And it was a really vibrant, fashionable city, and so it wasn't entirely one-sided.


Greg Clark

Now, in understanding that cultural appetite that you just described, do you have an assessment of where that appetite came from? Was it simply people wanting to have interaction with the outside world in the way that it was, or was it also infused with this desire to differentiate from the Beijing model, from this idea of the big kind of Han capital? What balance of those things do you intuit was at play there?


Jenny Lin

I think that it did very much have to do with Shanghainese to be able to set themself apart from people in the capital. I think there was kind of more of a feeling of freedom that was attached, and I even see today with talking to artists who are located in Shanghai or people that have spent a lot of time in Beijing and then go and settle in Shanghai. And they feel like being away from the political centre of the country allows them certain liberties that they wouldn't have if they're kind of under the watchful eye of the government. And I think that there was a real excitement about being able to find new models for making art and for making, perhaps, a commercial living out of one's art. It starts to develop around the 1920s, 1930s. A lot of times, with artists actually going abroad and studying, you see a lot of artists leaving China from Shanghai and then coming back to Shanghai. I'm thinking of people like Pang Xunqin and Ni Yide. Ni Yide went and studied in Tokyo; Pang Xunqin went and studied in Paris. And then they came back to Shanghai, and in the early 1930s, formed the first self-proclaimed avant-garde art and design group called the Storm Society, Juelanshe in Chinese.


And I think they were really excited about the future of modern Chinese art and culture and how they could utilise what they'd studied abroad, in the case of Ni Yide in Japan and the case of Pang Xunqin in France, and also elsewhere in Europe, looking to models like the Bauhaus School and the Surrealists and the Dadaists and these avant-garde groups and ways that they could meld together their revolutionary artistic spirit together with Chinese aesthetics and cultural interests. And this is all to the backdrop of revolution, as communism is taking form and shape and also vying with the Nationalist Party in the aftermath of the fall of the Qing Dynasty. So you have a lot of excitement about what, potentially, the art of the new nation could be. And I think that being away from the political capital and away from imperial China at that time allowed a certain freedom for thinking about openness and new possibilities.


Greg Clark

And so there's a mindset in Shanghai that allows for different possibilities, as you say. I'm going to come back to just ask you a little bit more in a minute about why then and why there did Chinese Communism get invented. But what I'd like to do now, if I may, having kind of heard that big story, I'd like to go back over some of the points, Jenny, if that's okay. And I'm going to just ask you in this order: firstly, about the role of the river as well as the ocean and just talk a little bit about the Yangtze River and its role, then we'll come on to the DNA point - what, in your view, could be considered to be the DNA of Shanghai? - then we'll come back to myths, if we may.


Jenny Lin

Sure.


Greg Clark

And then I'd like to come to innovation and cultural outpouring - what do you see as being, as it were, the artistic innovations and the non-artistic innovations? So you've already talked about the importance of the Pacific Ocean and Shanghai's openness to traders and merchants and the rest of the world. But what part does the Yangtze River play in Shanghai's evolution, as you see it, both culturally and socially?


Jenny Lin

Yeah, absolutely. So the river and the Huangpu River, which I think is the-- that's the main one that bisects Shanghai and runs through Shanghai, so yes, China-- the rivers are very important in China, as you know. And in Shanghai, the Huangpu River, it was a major tributary that contributed to the city as a trading port as it was established, especially by the British in the mid-19th century. The British also built up the riverfront that's called the Bund, or Waitan in Chinese. And that was the major kind of commercial economic stronghold of the city for many years. It had the Customs Agency building, it had the Hongkong Shanghai Banking Corporation and it was a-- the Bund was a major thoroughfare for the city. So it also spoke to the importation of capitalism and capitalistic systems into the city. And since, it's really, actually, fascinating because it's become a real cultural centre, and a lot of those former bank buildings and governmental offices and real estate offices and things like that have been turned into cultural centres. Places like 3 on the Bund that houses the Shanghai Gallery of Art, one of the most important art spaces in Shanghai for contemporary art, and also places of leisure and consumption.


And the river, of course, also in the present day is really important to defining the city, and this kind of goes back to one of your questions that you're going to ask me later about the idea of how many Shanghais there are. Because on the first level, we can talk about there being two, Puxi and Pudong. And Puxi, which is west of the Huangpu River, is considered the old Shanghai. That was the original Shanghai. And then in the 1990s, under Deng Xiaoping, as China expanded and threw open its doors to international investment, they made the Pudong area region of Shanghai a special economic zone and invited foreign companies back and to set up shop there, and that expanded the city by over six times. And Pudong is much more newer developments, skyscrapers, and you also see the Lujiazuie Financial District on the other side. So that's east of the river. So yes, it continues to be a really important facet of the city.


Greg Clark

Let's stay with your flow and let me then ask you the question, so how many Shanghais are there?


Jenny Lin

Yeah, sure. I was thinking about this, and I think we could say, first, there's two, Puxi and Pudong. If you meet somebody, often they'll ask where are you from, in Shanghai. And the people that are from Puxi are considered the kind of old school, original, real Shanghaiers. But then, of course, there's so many different neighbourhoods in Shanghai. As I mentioned, from the time of the semi-colonial period up until the Communist takeover in 1949, the whole country, you have the different foreign settlements: so the US and British occupied International Settlement, you have the French Concession, you have Japan's Zhabei district. And now, all of those neighbourhoods have very unique, distinct identities that are related to their vernacular architecture and the businesses and services that developed there. Gosh, I had a friend who lived right in the middle of the French Concession, an ex-pat, and he said he would never go north of Beijing Lu. There's a Beijing street in Shanghai, and once you go there, there are quite a lot - the ex-pat communities kind of very much congregates currently in French Concession or perhaps around the old US British International Settlement. You do see a lot of overseas Chinese and other Asian ex-pats, so Koreans and Japanese, in places like the Zhabei district.


But north of Beijing Lu, where I lived for a while, a year, did have quite a bit more local Shanghainese people, probably people that were from there or other local Chinese people have come to live in Shanghai so I guess that's what he meant. But I thought, how close-minded to not go north of Beijing Lu but it did feel, in a way, like another city: less historic architecture, bigger shopping malls, louder techno pumping out from those sites.


Greg Clark

So let me ask you the core question that relates to the podcast overall. If somebody said to you, what's the DNA of Shanghai, how would you answer that question?


Jenny Lin

I think I would answer in relationship to this idea of Haipai. Usually, people in the arts and intellectuals, they refer to it more as the spirit of Shanghai. I think that that could also be referred to as a kind of genetic makeup that is an ocean culture, like you mentioned, a Pacific, outward-looking positionality where one is open to the foreign influences and interested in a kind of cultural hybridity as opposed to a very purist kind of approach to defining oneself as nationalist. Oftentimes, people outside of Shanghai will say, oh, Shanghai is not the real China. And I think, first of all, that there's no real China if we want to define it in one single way, but there's just many, many different Chinas. But Shanghai is one particular identity within Chinese culture and identity where it is about fluidity, hybridity, openness to other cultures and an embrace of multicultural identities.


Greg Clark

Thank you so much. Brilliant. And from the point of view, then, of creativity, design, art, innovation, what is it that you think is Shanghai's distinctive contribution in this kind of cultural and artistic and even, perhaps, scientific sphere? Given that you've studied this so much, what is it that you can only make or do in Shanghai?


Jenny Lin

I also think it's about kind of a cultural hybridity, and this extends to all aspects of Shanghai's culture, be it visual art, architecture, fashion, popular culture. So one thing I was thinking about as being really emblematic of the Haipai or ocean style Shanghai style is the qipao dress, which it's disputed if it was, in air quotes, invented in Hong Kong or Shanghai. It certainly was one of these garments that developed over many centuries. It relates to, also, imperial robes, but it was popularised in Shanghai, and it is the modern Chinese dress that is a one piece. At the time that you started seeing women wearing this in the early 20th century, prior to that, only men would usually wear these kinds of robes and one-piece garments, and so women now wearing these. And they were also tight fitting, they hugged curves, they had slits up the side that kind of came with them-- as they adapted different Western style modes of dress, they were often worn with high heels. Women crossed their legs while they wore it, so it was a different kind of, even, posture, bodily posture that was coming from Western norms and behaviours. But that dress, I think, which also kind of originated with imperial style of Chinese tradition, really shows us this kind of culturally hybrid approach to making a garment and then wearing it and being fashionable and modern in the Shanghai sense.


Greg Clark

Wonderful. And so that's in the world of fashion and attire. Are there other realms of art, culture, design or other kinds of innovations that you would point to that are distinctively Shanghai?


Jenny Lin

Yes, absolutely. So in my book, I talk a lot about the development project called Xintiandi which translates into New Heaven on Earth. It's an outdoor shopping mall, and it utilises the architecture, the vernacular architecture of the former French Concession so it's these shikumen and longtang. They are stone gate homes and old alleyways. And this is the way that the French Concession neighbourhoods were organised beginning in the late 19th century. And they're communal kind of styles of living so people would often share kitchens and bathrooms and have their own home. In the 1990s, this area, which had fallen into disrepair, was demolished. But interestingly enough, it surrounded the site of the first communist meeting that we were talking about, so that was in 1921. And they wanted to preserve the site, and they actually wanted the neighbourhood around it in really good shape because the then President of China was going to go to visit in honour of the 50th year anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party. So an architect named Benjamin Wood, then of the group Wood and Zapata from Boston, Massachusetts in the USA-- there was various kind of pitches to think about what to do at the neighbourhood.


Skidmore, Owings & Merrill had been originally hired and, from my research, wanted to kind of raze it and then just build up high-rise shopping malls like you see all over the city of Shanghai. But Benjamin Wood and Wood and Zapata decided instead to try to preserve some of those shikumen and longtang styles so now you see in this mall nods to that. In many cases, they were demolished, and a lot of the people were dislocated from their homes who lived there. But they kept some of the facades up; they kept some of the original buildings up. And it gives you a sense of that old Shanghai style that was very unique to the urban fabric. So that's architecturally. Another example then also, as I talk about in my book, Pang Xunjin, who I mentioned - the artist who had gone and studied in Paris and founded the Storm Society - had his studio located in a building in the area that is now Xintiandi, not far from the first Communist meeting. There's also a leftist filmmaking group and a rehearsal studio for actors founded by the famous Shanghainese film director Yuan Muzhi, who made a film called Street Angel that was really important in 1930s Shanghai, a leftist film celebrating revolutionaries in Shanghai. Pang Xunjin and the Storm Society group-- like I said, he was really interested in the legacy of Bauhaus and trying to introduce that into Shanghai and creating a modern art that would both fuse together modern Western painting together with traditional Chinese aesthetics and motifs towards design. He made all these really wonderful design proposals for applied designs which, sadly, never saw the light of day, really because of the Revolution War with Japan and then the Cultural Revolution. But I think there was a moment, you know, around the 1930s in Shanghai where you see also the rise of Art Deco, the embrace of Art Deco architecture and its adoption in various sites in Shanghai. And that really, I think, epitomises that embrace of international styles and also kind of adapting them and making them their own.


Greg Clark

Jenny, thank you so much. I mean, your remarks are so rich and, you know, I can hear all of the scholarship that's behind everything you're saying.


Jenny Lin

Thank you. It's making me miss Shanghai so much.


Greg Clark

So I want to ask you two more set questions and then anything else you want to say will sort of be the question. But so let's go back to this idea that one of Shanghai's inventions is Chinese communism. And so why is it, in your reading of the longer history of Shanghai, that Chinese communism is fomented, invented, codified in Shanghai, in that place at that time? What is it that you understand about that?


Jenny Lin

Yeah, well, I mean, it is also an embrace of foreign ideas, right? And looking to Marxism and to thinking about other alternatives outside of the country, I think, China having come out of centuries of imperial dynasties and this really old kind of style that was at that time, in the early 1900s, centred in Beijing, you get, I think, with scholars, intellectuals, people like Lu Xun the writer who also founded the revolutionary Woodcut movement that was based in Shanghai in the 1930s-- I think you get a kind of a feeling of liberation and resistance. And actually, ironically, or paradoxically, the foreign-controlled neighbourhoods away from the watchful eye of the Nationalists allowed for more plotting and secret meetings of people who are really invested in thinking about an alternative path for the nation.


Greg Clark

So what's interesting in what you say, of course, is that you had this sort of avantgarde leftist and this sort of other alternative culture. You also had this desire, this sort of part of the Shanghai DNA, this hybridity, to be influenced by the outside, and that comes together as, in a sense, political philosophy meets creative endeavour. What part then, in your view, does Shanghai play then in the promotion of Chinese communism, and why is it successfully, as it were, fomented from Shanghai in the long term?


Jenny Lin

Yeah, okay, that's a great question. So I also didn't mention that now with the development of Xintiandi, this outdoor shopping mall, the site of the first Communist Congress is still there and preserved. And you can go and tour it, and there's a wax museum with figures like Mao and others who were reportedly there at that first meeting. And there's lots of propaganda and very nationalist bombastic texts that are available to see there. And then it's interesting because it's located in this very capitalistic space of consumption with a lot of global fashion brands and corporations that are located in there.


Greg Clark

The irony is delicious.


Jenny Lin

Yeah, so there's that. And I think that, you know, gosh, beginning in the early 21st century, a lot of artists who got famous by leaving mainland China after 1989, many of them going to places like New York City or other cosmopolitan metropolises outside of mainland China, in the early 2000s, mid-2000s, they started getting invited back by the Chinese Communist Party officials and governments that were really interested in investing in contemporary art in China and culture. So you see big figures like Xu Bing, for example, who got very well known in New York, coming back and working in a top leadership position in the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. And I think the signals in the early 2000s two is a real kind of embrace of contemporary art and culture and thinking about how an international presence would help to bolster China's reputation on a world stage. So right around this time, then, you also get big spectacular events like the Beijing Olympics of 2008. Shanghai hosted the Shanghai World Expo in 2010, and that was a major event that's very linked to how art and culture get utilised towards a promotion of Chinese government and state internationally.


And of course, Shanghai's unique position, very long known as the most cosmopolitan city, was really foregrounded and celebrated at the Shanghai World Expo. But there were, amongst locals, many grumblings. Some people felt that it was an overblown spectacular event that was not really for them. There's an art group called Birdhead, Niao Tou, that took all these photos of the demolition that took place, the displacement of people that took place in order to build the World Expo in Shanghai. And it was kind of this lamenting of the grand spectacle and the grand narrative as opposed to those local stories.


Greg Clark

So let's look ahead to the next 10, 15, 20 years and Shanghai's role in China's development, but also Shanghai's role as one of the biggest cities in the world and one of the most powerful cities in the world. To what extent do you think Shanghai is becoming more Shanghai and becoming more unique and distinctively the story that you've been telling about what makes Shanghai unique? Or to what extent do you think there are challenges or risks in the way that Shanghai evolves, that it could become, as it were, less like Shanghai and more like any city?


Jenny Lin

Yeah, that's an excellent question. I think, looking to the street level, the things that are really distinct about Shanghai to me are also the collision of local, traditional kind of small scale against this booming development, international corporate kind of culture and landscape. And I always think about the juxtaposition of a little baozi place, a place where you might go to get your mantou, your bread in the morning, or Youtiao, Chinese fried donuts. It was the case when I lived there, gosh, the first time in  early 2000s. I had been visiting back and forth since the '90s. As a teenager, I used to go, but then when I first graduated from college, I went and lived there for a year in 2003 to 2004. And from that time, I would be able to wake up every morning and go down my street Tianping Lu, right, by Jiao Tong University and get my breakfast and talk to the neighbours and go to these little local places to get fruits or nuts, these small micro kind of businesses and markets. And I think those were starting to disappear. They still were in existence as I went during the Expo and subsequent years.


But I fear that if they become totally eradicated, these smaller businesses, and taken over by large supermarkets, Carrefours, Jai Le Fus in Chinese, and things like that, we're going to really lose that spirit of Shanghai. So maybe the spirit, it's not only the idea that you get the local traditional culture completely subsumed by an international one, but rather that they can coexist so that the local Shanghainese tradition, the xiao long bao and whatnot, can exist together with the larger big hotel chains.


Greg Clark

In a sense, the thing I think you're saying is that that will require some conscious curation not to lose it.


Jenny Lin

Yes, absolutely.


Greg Clark

Yeah. Brilliant. I can't wait to read your book, Jenny, and I'm so grateful to you. Now, anything that you would have said if only I'd asked you the right question?


Jenny Lin

Oh, goodness, did you already listen to the Jonathan Chatwin's podcast? Caitlin might have mentioned, but he did a podcast on the Southern Tour, Deng Xiaoping's Southern Tour, and he stopped in different cities where he went along. And so we have one on Shanghai. So I think I said many funny and useful things in that as well. And a couple of other things. Paul French and I did an interview that might be useful and then I got featured in this kind of Chinese-British business magazine. I can send those references to you. So there might be others.


Greg Clark

And was there anything that you really wanted to say that you didn't get to say in the last 45 minutes?


Jenny Lin

I guess I could say Wo ai Shanghai means I love Shanghai.


Greg Clark

What is it that Shanghai invokes in you that makes you love Shanghai?


Jenny Lin

I love Shanghai most for, like what I was talking about with the small breakfast bao place, the conversations that you have with neighbours in an old shikumen. The vibrancy. It feels like it's kind of constantly in transition and changing, the way it comes alive at night with the really magnificent Led lights that light up all the skyscrapers around town. Yeah, all of these things. It feels very alive.


Greg Clark

Are you saying it makes you feel alive?


Jenny Lin

I guess so, yeah. I think when I walk around Shanghai, especially on an evening when it's not too polluted or, you know what, even in the pollution, I guess, breathing that in, it does. It makes me feel alive and excited about what might happen next.

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